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Help Me Fix Up My Chair!

June  2, 2016

It had taken about an hour just to get across town. On foot. I was scanning the booths at Brimfield—the largest outdoor antiques show in New England, which took over its namesake Massachusetts town for a 6-day kick-off market earlier this month—doing a preliminary pass. Brimfield's an itty bitty town, but with thousands of booths hawking every possible kind of antique along a few miles of country highway, the going is slow.

Besides getting my bearings, I was looking for a few fellow colleagues making the rounds, for kitchen tools I didn't immediately recognize, and for one treasure to lug home and fix up. A cutting board? Too easy. A threadbare rug? Too hard/impossible. Then under a big shady tree in the center of town, I spotted it.

Chair friend. Photo by Linda Xiao

With two saggy (one curiously sand-filled) linen cushions, my chair looked familiar even though we'd never met. The vendor told me it was Danish, likely from the fifties, and we looked together at a red stamp on the underside that named its place of origin and a few numbers that didn't make any immediate sense. The seat was roomy, good for curling up and getting too comfortable in, and the lines of the wood were more elegant than others I'd seen, though nothing museum-worthy.

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But the sticker price was more cash than I'd brought: "$260, negotiable," the last bit like some kind of taunt. The seat bands were intact, but mismatched. The wood needed sanding and polishing; new cushions were definitely in order. I did a quick mental tally of costs I knew nothing about and kept walking.

Photo by Linda Xiao

I found my coworkers, bothered some nice people selling old linen sheets made by hand in Eastern Europe, and crushed a pulled pork sandwich at the only food vendor in Brimfield worth your money. I picked over dollar silverware, found a really cute antique ice cream scooper, marveled at the masses of people and things, and found myself wanting to go back to the chair—but where?

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Top Comment:
“If you go to a reupholstery shop, they should be able to help with the chair straps if the current ones aren't any good. ”
— Maria
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The best map you can get at Brimfield has just the main drag on it and the names of various fields; there's no real order to where the little plots pop up within them, nor any means of finding your way to the ones you like but a sound or photographic memory. I walked in circles for a small eternity. And by some small miracle, there it was again.

Photo by Linda Xiao

I chatted with the shop's owner; she was so glad I'd come back that she hugged me, squealing, "You came back for your chair!" (Note to self: Be less obvious when in love.) I told her my plans to fix it up, my complete lack of knowledge about how to do so, and my budget. We went back and forth a few times on a fair price, until she dropped a hundred off the original number and started jotting out a list of tips for getting it back in its best possible condition. Just like that.

"Send me pictures!" she said in parting, like I was a babysitter taking her kid on a trip to the park.

Photo by Linda Xiao

So now I have this chair. I'm going to fix it up, even if I have nowhere to put it and no idea how to do it. And I thought you, trusty and experienced readers, might have some tips.

  • For the frame: The woman had told me to use mineral oil and steel wool to gently scrub away the existing finish on the (walnut? teak?) wood. I love the simplicity of this, and that it wouldn't require a sander. Has anyone tried this means, or loved another way better? I'd like to just oil it in the end, rather than finish it with paint, shellac, varnish, or polyurethane.
  • And for the cushions, I think it makes sense to have new ones upholstered professionally, based on the size and shape of these two. Poll: velvet or linen?
  • My gut tells me that replacing the mis-matched seat straps is only something I should do when they give out—but if anyone thinks it's worth getting done up front I'm all ears. (I've heard of this site for replacements; any others?)
  • Frame, cushions, straps. What am I missing? Dowels? Help.
Photo by Linda Xiao

Share your tips (or tales of antiques spotted and fallen for) in the comments below!

14 Comments

carrie H. June 4, 2016
The seller was telling you to refinish the wood with steel wool and refinisher that I buy at Home Depot. I refinished my grandmother's gate leg table and it is gorgeous. Refinishing brings it down to the original wood.
 
Nic June 4, 2016
Smaug makes some excellent points re, the finish & the joints. He/she knows their stuff ! It looks like your chair may be made of Beech (looking at the photo of the front rail) and then stained to look like Teak and sprayed with (most likely) NC lacquer. The finish actually looks in decent condition for its age – that’s the PATINA (GIYF here!) – the item’s history if you like. Just touch up any scratches with some oil based stain using a very fine artist’s brush and then wax & polish (dark beeswax applied with 0000 grade wire wool) if you strip the finish you will most likely ruin it ! If there is movement in the joints it will be worst where the seat rails meet the back. If its not severe probably best leave it alone.(If the corner blocks are loose try and tighten them) Chair construction is comlplex, and if you don’t have woodworking skills/ facilities / tools etc. It’s not an ideal first project – it would be sad to end up with a box of bits. If you do decide to take it apart make sure you label EVERYTHING. You might want to have a look at this article: http://www.popularwoodworking.com/techniques/finishing/regluing_doweled_chairs . This is a good book too https://www.amazon.co.uk/Care-repair-furniture-Albert-Jackson/dp/0004127307 . Do be aware that Antique dealers are often cut from the same cloth as used car salesmen and real estate agents, although usually with a lot more charm! Good luck with your chair – let us know how you get on!
 
Smaug June 4, 2016
It should also be pointed out that, if this chair has any value as an antique (which I seriously doubt) any effort to refinish it or replace anything will destroy it, leaving you with just an old chair.
 
Smaug June 3, 2016
You don't mention What sort of finish is on the chair; if it's any sort of varnish or shellac, you're going to have a VERY long job trying to take it off with steel wool, particularly if you can't disassemble it. The most important thing is going to be the condition of the joints. Spindles and stretchers are particularly vulnerable in this sort of construction- they are essentially in tension, and are often cut pretty loosely for ease of factory assembly; if they're at all loose, they will get worse and repairs are not simple. You're probably stuck with the dowel joints, but make sure to replace the dowels with tight fitting ones- commercial joining dowels, which are slightly compressed and have striations along the sides to allow better glue distribution, are better than simply cutting a length of dowel rod, but the sizes available are limited. I love oil and wax finishes for furniture, but take note that they do little to protect the wood and are not durable on pieces (such as chairs) that get handled a lot-- they're also easy to touch up, however.
 
Lauren K. June 3, 2016
I vote linen! <br /><br />Can't wait to see the finished product, and if I'm really lucky, get to sit on it.
 
ChefJune June 2, 2016
Oh, and did I mention I love the Brimfield Antiques Fair?
 
ChefJune June 2, 2016
be sure to use 0000 (4-ought) steel wool on the chair so you won't scratch the wood to death! Aunt Elsie would have told you to use boiled linseed oil. The chair looks like the "Danish modern" I remember from the late 50's /early 60's, so since Marimekko is Scandinavian, a print like that would be cool unless you're after something more neutral. It's your blank canvas. Have at it!
 
Maria June 2, 2016
If you aren't planning on painting or sanding the frame, I would just use a good wood polish on it. The pictures look like it is in really good shape and any nicks or dings that might be there will most likely be covered with the pillows. I would go for a linen or tweed or boucle (like Phil stated) if you wanted to stay within the era. I would add a smaller rectangular pillow in a fun print for a pop of color but that is just me! If you go to a reupholstery shop, they should be able to help with the chair straps if the current ones aren't any good.
 
Taylor R. June 2, 2016
This chair gives me happy-curl-up-in-a-chair feelings. And I love the straps!
 
PHIL June 2, 2016
Oh, i like a linen fabric or a nubby boucle is nice to add some texture. If your daring enough a Marimekko print would be cool too. Be sure to post the "after" picture.
 
Lindsay-Jean H. June 2, 2016
Oh I love this chair. I wouldn't have been able to walk away either!
 
PHIL June 2, 2016
I have 2 similar danish mid century scissor chairs I am about to work on too. I found the same website as you for the straps. Good luck with chair. Are the fabric cushions original? check before you throw them out.
 
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Amanda S. June 2, 2016
I'm not sure, but I have no intentions of throwing them out! Don't you worry.
 
ChefJune June 2, 2016
I would be reupholstering those cushions.